World Tsunami Awareness Day, November 2016

After the harrowing impact of tsunamis on coastal areas around the Indian Ocean in December 2004 that killed up to 230,000 people, and on the Japanese coast in March 2011 that killed some 16,000 people, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 5 November 2016 the first official World Tsunami Awareness Day.

Tsunami 2004: Aceh, Indonesia Photo CC BY-ND 2.0
After the Tsunami in 2004 in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo / Flickr, under CC BY-ND 2.0

The UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has been tasked with facilitating the observance of World Tsunami Awareness Day, and is linking it with the annual 13 October celebration of International Day for Disaster Reduction which this year is focused on reducing disaster mortality.

The date of 5 November was chosen in honour of a true story from Japan: “Inamura-no-hi”, which means the “burning of the rice sheaves”. The story relates to the actions of a local landowner who, during an 1854 earthquake, realized that the receding tide was a sign of a looming tsunami. The only way he could warn the villagers below him was to set fire to his rice harvest, which led them to high ground and safety. In the aftermath, he sheltered the community and helped them re-build to withstand future events, constructing an embankment and planting trees as a tsunami buffer.

The UN estimates that, in the past 100 years, more than 260,000 people have perished in 58 separate tsunamis.

Memorial to those lost in the tsunami of 26 December 2004. Veerampattinam Beach. Photo: gordontour CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Memorial to those lost in the tsunami of 26 December 2004 at Veerampattinam Beach, Puducherry. Photo: gordontour / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
 Asian Development Bank CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Destruction of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Photo: Asian Development Bank, Under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tsunami Warning Systems

A tsunami warning system known as the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) was established for the Oceania countries in 1949, after a tsunami killed 159 people on the Hawaiian Islands in 1946.

But, according to a 2014 report by Shaun Sim of the International Business Times, before December 2004, “what passed for a tsunami and earthquake warning system in the Indian Ocean region was intuition”, based on “people feeling the earthquake and then running”, with few countries including a tsunami scenario in their disaster management plan. “We were sent to Sri Lanka for a convention to discuss disasters, and tsunamis were not even on the program,” said Walter Mooney, research seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, explaining that governments and agencies gave more attention to what they believed were more predictable disasters such as storms, due to time and resource constraints. “We were completely wrong,” Mooney said, noting that the 2004 tsunami caught everyone by surprise.

In 2005 the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission initiated the establishment of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning & Mitigation System (IOTWMS) to create “tsunami resilient” communities in the region. The warning system works in two parts: Firstly, a network of underwater pressure sensors called DART (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis) sends an alert to ground centres when it senses a substantial pressure change, and secondly, that information is then relayed to areas in the path of the tsunami.

According to Mooney, the system only became fully functional in February 2008, a few months ahead of schedule. Before that, however, an earthquake and tsunami hit Java, Indonesia, in 2006, resulting in 600 deaths.

In 2012, another 8.4- magnitude earthquake shook Banda Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, and the warning system alerted the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India within eight minutes, but took 20 to reach warning sirens in Aceh province because of electrical grid failure. Apart from infrastructural and logistical challenges, one of the problems identified was reluctance amongst countries to share data, according to Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center (ITIC). Another critical gap, she noted, was that the warnings cannot reach communities close to the earthquake epicentre in time, leaving them just 10 to 20 minutes to escape a potential tsunami. “Warning sensors can only do it so fast,” Kong said. “For such cases, you have to rely on education.”

Partly to address these shortcomings, and also as a run-up to World Tsunami Awareness Day, UNISDR together with its partners organized a number of events in 2016. Amongst others, the Intergovernmental Coordination Group for the Pacific Tsunami Warning System (ICG/PTWS) held its sixth International Tsunami Exercise, PacWave16, in February 2016, the ICG for Tsunami and other Coastal Hazards Warning System for the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions (ICG/CARIBE EWS) held the CARIBE WAVE 16 tsunami exercise on March 17, its fifth annual regional tsunami exercise, while the IGC for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (ICG/IOTWMS) held its first Indian Ocean Wave Exercise (IOWave16) in September 2016.

In addition, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology hosted a pre-IOWave16 “Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) for Tsunami Warning and Emergency Response” workshop for Indian Ocean countries in May 2016, Mozambique hosted a training workshop on “Tsunami Awareness and Preparedness”, and Tanzania also held one on SOP’s, both of the latter in June 2016. The training sessions in Maputo (Mozambique) and Mombasa (Tanzania) focused on tsunami hazards affecting the Eastern African coast, and on preparation for September’s IOWave16 tsunami simulation exercise.

 hansol CC BY 2.0
Tsunami warning sign. Photo: hansol / Flickr, under CC BY 2.0


IOWave 16 took place in September 2016, involving 24 countries around the Indian Ocean. It consisted of a ‘mock’ disaster exercise consisting of two scenarios: the first simulating a 9.2 magnitude earthquake south of Sumatra in Indonesia on 7 September and the second simulated a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Makran Trench south of Iran and Pakistan on 8 September, both initiating tsunamis travelling across the Indian Ocean.


Disaster management officials from Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, France (La Reunion), India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Mozambique, Myanmar, Oman, Pakistan, Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor Leste and Yemen were involved in the two-day drill, which was monitored by UNISDR and its partners.

UNISDR focused on observing the response of the Indian and Seychelles National Tsunami Warning Centres and the performance of their national and local Disaster Management Offices in implementing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

“Since the Indian Ocean tsunami, we have made considerable progress in setting up our national warning system, but for a low frequency, high impact disaster such as tsunami, maintaining the awareness and response levels of the coastal communities at high level during all times is a major challenge. Drills are a major and necessary operation to test the emergency system and to verify the missing gaps in the last mile of the early warning chain which is most critical,” said Dr Srinivasa Kumar Tummala, Head of the Indian Tsunami Early Warning Centre.

“We were lucky in 2004 as Seychelles only lost 3 people but we cannot take the risk to be lucky. We need to make sure that all exposed populations are alerted as soon as possible and assisted smoothly with evacuation to safer grounds at best,” said Regina Prosper from the government of Seychelles.

The exercise included community evacuation drills, involving over 50,000 participants, in Australia, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Mauritius, Oman, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste. In Sri Lanka 14 villages evacuated, involving some 7,000 participants. In Oman eight schools and about 8,000 students took part in simulated evacuations. In India, community level evacuations were carried out in about 350 villages involving 40,000 participants, mostly from the Indian state of Odisha on the Bay of Bengal, which has been a fatal shore for centuries.


Evaluations are being conducted at national and international levels to identify gaps and weaknesses in the system and to improve the IOTWMS.

One of the loopholes identified early on, according to T. Nandakumar writing for The Hindu newspaper, was that of inaccuracies in micro-level population figures in the Indian state of Kerala, where some 3,711 residents living within 100m of the coast in four districts were evacuated. Experts analysing data generated during the IOWave16 drill found that assessing vulnerable populations along the coastline identified for evacuation was hampered by the lack of up-to-date information on the spatial distribution of population, owing to shifts in ward boundaries every few years.

According to a Revenue Department official, the matter is already being addressed, and village officers have been tasked with the preparation of population estimates at village level to provide disaster management officials with precise data in order to rectify the flaw.

The UN General Assembly has called on all countries, international bodies and civil society to observe World Tsunami Awareness Day, in order to raise tsunami awareness and share innovative approaches to risk reduction. Each edition of the annual day will be thematic: the focus of the debut World Tsunami Awareness Day in 2016 is effective education and evacuation drills.

See more about World Tsunami Awareness Day here.

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